By Nicole Cobler and Madlin Mekelburg
AUSTIN — Following the liberalization of marijuana laws in other states, Texas lawmakers backed by advocates for decriminalization have filed bills that would lessen penalities for possession of pot to that of a traffic ticket.
State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would lessen the charge for than a third of an ounce of marijuana, changing it from a Class B misdemeanor, where a defendant could face jail time, to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine.
“We’re really hoping to have a serious debate about this,” Wu said. “I think society’s attitude is changing about marijuana. There is pressure from both the left and the right to make substantial changes.”
More than 32 percent of Texans on his side, according to a 2014 poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. The poll shows that while 32 percent believe possession of small amounts should be legal, 23 percent believe possession of marijuana should be illegal no matter the circumstances — medicinal or otherwise.
“All we can do is hope that the Legislature is listening to the people,” said David Sloane, one of 300 Texans who flooded the state Capitol last week to advocate for looser marijuana laws. “If they’re reading the polls, which I would hope they would do, I don’t see how they can ignore us.”
Texas has historically had strict marijuana laws — a state statute still refers to the drug as “marihuana” — so reform legislation has had trouble gaining any ground in the past. In fact, this legislative session supporters of decriminalization hired a lobbyist for the first time.
Wu’s bill is one of many filed this session that seek to lessen sentences for convictions for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, filed a similar bill that would make possession of one ounce or less punishable by a $100 ticket.
Wu, a former prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said his primary focus is to provide relief to law enforcement and misdemeanor courts which deal with a substantial number of possession charges.
“We’re not doing this to help people smoke pot,” Wu said. “We’re doing this because there is a law enforcement need to have better ways of dealing with this. … Whether you have half a joint or a small baggie, you have to be arrested, you have to be taken to jail. This just soaks up a lot of time for officers and eats up a lot of time for prosecutors.”
Moody’s bill is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group. Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the group, said Moody’s bill would be a better option for Texans because it is not as restrictive as Wu’s.
“The political climate is ripe for marijuana reform because of the movement around the country,” Fazio said. “Texans are ready for it, it’s just a matter of how to move forward.”
Three states, Colorado Washington and Oregon, have legalized small amounts of marijuana and more than a dozen states allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes, according to Marijuana Policy Project.
Although Moody’s bill is more lenient than Wu’s bill, Progress Texas Deputy Director Phillip Martin said the potential for lower state expenditures outlined in Moody’s bill could improve its chance of passing.
“I think it has a real shot in the legislature this session,” Martin said. “We’ve seen bipartisan support for criminal justice reform.”
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, said he would support Moody’s bill.
“I think if you’re not harming your neighbor it’s a plant that God made and if you use it responsibly it shouldn’t be criminal,” Simpson said. “I don’t even think it should be a civil penalty.”
Simpson has filed legislation of his own, both regarding synthetic marijuana. One bill would ban the production or distribution of synthetic marijuana, and the other would make distributors liable for any damages caused from ingesting the drug.
Advocates say the marijuana bills also might run into trouble this session from the top two state leaders. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said that he would not support legislation on medical marijuana, and Gov. Greg Abbott has voiced similar opposition.
“Gov. Abbott supports current drug laws and opposes the legalization of marijuana,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott.